Set Visit: The Dark Is Rising


If you saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the last week, you may have seen a trailer for something called The Dark Is Rising in front of it and wondered what that movie was about. If so, you probably never read Susan Cooper’s Newberry Award winning fantasy book of the same name and you’re probably not alone. (You also may have missed’s preview of our visit to Media Pro Studios in Bucharest, Romania where Fox Walden was shooting the movie.)

First published in 1973, Susan Cooper’s second book in what would be a series of five novels tells the story of a British boy named Will Stanton who discovers he has all sorts of powers, which he’ll need when he plays an important part in an epic battle between good and evil that require him to find six elemental signs–medallions with a symbol of a cross within a circle–while traveling through different time periods. (Reading the book makes it obvious that Cooper’s novels were highly influential on the Russian novels that inspired the movies Night Watch and Day Watch.)

Before we boarded the plane to Bucharest, we were told by a number of people these horror stories about what a miserable and dangerous place it is with pickpockets and wild dogs roaming the streets. You see, back at the height of communism when Nicolae Ceausescu was the country’s dictator, he decided to bulldoze sixteen blocks of downtown Bucharest in order to build himself a Parliamentary Palace, the second largest single building structure after the Pentagon. When that part of the city was razed, everyone evacuated, leaving behind their beloved pets to fend for themselves, and decades later, these dogs have procreated and multiplied to the point where they are quite out of control. (And to think that Mike White missed the opportunity to shoot his new movie here; think of all the free talent!) Even the guidebook almost said, “Stay Away!” in big capital letters. Nice, right? Well, it’s certainly not as bad as everyone seemed to make out, and after arriving, we had a few hours to walk around the city and explore the stern-faced buildings and fountain-lined streets–you could watch Blood and Chocolate to get some idea, though we wouldn’t recommend that movie to our worst enemy. Yes, we did see more than a few stray dogs as well, but they weren’t savage at all. They actually were quite tame and some were even rather cute, and they added a lot to the very distinct personality of the city. (It was also rather strange to see these street signs all over town which looked very similar to the cross and circle symbols in the book and movie.) (View photos of Romania.)

The next day we were driven to Media Pro Studios outside the city–as we learned, very little is nearby in Bucharest. Media Pro’s claim to fame were the years they spent making Communist propaganda films before the fall of Ceaucescu in 1989. (Studio rep Ruxandra Comsa was nice enough to give us the rundown of the studio’s history as we ate lunch.) During the course of a very fully day we would talk with many of the creative people involved with the film including director David Cunningham, and we spoke to young newcomer Alexander Ludvig who landed the role of Will Stanton, his two allies Merriman Lyon and Miss Greythorne, played by HBO vets Ian McShane (“Deadwood”) and Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”), as well as their adversaries, The Rider, played by Christopher Eccleston, and his biped counterpart, played by Jonathan Jackson.

We started off our day by sitting down with screenwriter John Hodge, best known as the writer of Danny Boyle’s films from Shallow Grave and Trainspotting through The Beach. He might seem like an odd choice for this kind of movie, but he gave us a rundown of the general plot for the film:

“For those of you not familiar with the book–I haven’t read the script for a while so I’ve been thinking about this on the way out here in the long journey–essentially it’s a story of a 13-year-old boy, Will Stanton, who finds himself caught up in the eternal struggle between good and evil, in this story between what are called the forces of light and the dark. Specifically, he discovers that he’s not just a normal 13-year-old boy, that he is in fact someone called The Seeker, and he has special insights and special powers, but most specifically he has a specific task, which is to find these six signs in which is hidden the dormant part of the light. At this point in history with evil ascending–that’s to say the dark is rising as the titles suggests–he has to find these 6 signs, restore the power of the Light and then defeat the Dark. What I thought was interesting about the story is that he has to do this at the same time as being a 13-year-old boy and dealing with the issues that a 13-year-old boy has to deal with. For example, he’s the second youngest in a large family. He has older brothers who are picking on him and kind of trampling on his and ignoring him because he’s at the lower end of the family. His parents don’t seem to take much notice of him. So these are the kind of issues he’s dealing with at the same time as saving the human race.”

We’ll run this entire interview soon, but Hodge explained the reasons for the many changes from the book to the movie that we’d learn about later, including making Will older than he is in the novel and having him being an American living in present-day England.

Next up was the production’s costume designer Vin Burnham, who showed us the costumes worn by some of the Old Ones, including the wild riding cloak worn by Eccleston’s The Rider, a black get-up lined with actual fur and feathers to make it seem more animalistic. Miss Greythorne wears a lot of eccentric ’60s outfits in which Burnham had incorporated Celtic symbols, and Burnham told us that she tends to adapt her clothes for different times, one of the most odd outfits being an olive green coat with fur lining. She explained how they had included small crystals in the outfits worn by Conroy and McShane to make their outfits glisten on camera, even though they might not be perceptible to the naked eye. When we spoke with Conroy later, she’d mention how she loved how her billowing coat added flair to a scene where she’d twirl while pulling a sword from her walking stick.

Our next victim was production designer David Lee, who led the group of journalists through a hallway at the production offices that was lined with the concept art, designs and models for some of the sets we’d see later in the day, while giving us some idea of how the story flowed through the different locations. He showed us pictures used for reference and inspiration to create Holcombe Village, which they created by cleaning and dressing up a nearby town. Part of the story takes place in the village pub where Will finds one of the six signs, and Lee explained how they tried to incorporate some of the same Celtic symbols and fractals into the sets that Burnham had used in the costumes. Lee’s team also redressed a local mall for a scene in which Will is buying Christmas presents for his family and encounters a couple of scary security guards who are working for the Dark. Another important location in the movie is Miss Greythorne’s mansion, which we first see when Will and his family visit her for Christmas. The model essentially looked like giant mansion, and it didn’t quite prepare us for when we’d get to see the real thing later. We’d also see models and inspiration for the Great Hall, which plays such a large part in the story, both in its erected form from hundreds of years in the past and its present-day ruins form. (Lee told us that the six signs were created in a chamber below the Great Hall, which Will would explore during the movie.)

During the tour of the production offices, we were able to look at some of the film’s storyboards, and we were particularly impressed by one sequence which involved a giant snowglobe version of Holcombe Village in which Will gets trapped, leading to an impressive special FX montage where we see the Dark sweeping across the entire planet in the form of millions of ravens (called rooks in the novel.) Later in our visit, we’d get to see how they were going to shoot the giant snowglobe sequence by putting actor Alexander Ludvig on a large-scale model of it, then filming through a water tank filled with paper snow.

After we finished looking at the models and concept art, David introduced us to his right-hand man, set designer Andrew Bennett, who worked in the art department of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and he proceeded to take us around Media Pro to some of the existing sets and locations for which we had just seen the models.

First up was one of the film’s larger interior sets, a reconstruction of a 13th Century chapel which took nearly four months to build. As he showed us around, Bennett explained how David Cunningham’s director of photography Joel Ransom liked to have full sets in order to do 360 degree camera sweeps that would represent Will’s travels through time. It was an impressive sight, complete with actual stained glass windows and lit candle chandeliers, and on the right of the altar was a pulpit with stairs leading up to it. We were told that these stairs drop away into a trap door that would send Will down into the basement of the church, where he’d find another one of the signs. In the center of the altar, there was a large metal grate to which Ian McShane’s Merriman would be tied as thousands of snakes crawled over him, an experience that McShane cherished more than being in Bucharest:

“Oh, yeah, there were about twelve hundred of them,” he would tell us an interview later that day. “I told them, ‘Put three thousand of them on me and get me out of here a week early.’ I was happy when they said they would, but they lied to me. I grew fond of the snakes. I’ve never worked with them before. They were nice, you know? I was especially fond of this big python. He was this thirty-footer, but they are very heavy. I had these two that just kept looking at me. But he’s very good, the snake handler. You just have to sit and relax. It was very easy. None of them were poisonous. They only bite if they get in a highly nervous situation. They didn’t bite. We were okay.”

“I had a snake around my neck,” Frances Conroy would add. “First they put a big rubber one around my neck because it was a really, real looking snake, and then they put the real 30-foot python around my neck. The little tail was going like this (make wagging motions) and I had to sort of hold it on. The main snake handler was off to the side holding the head like this. So the snakes were interesting. There were thousands of them, and below me, around my feet were most of them in a circle and then they took up little barriers and they were crawling a little bit. Yeah. Ian, and Jim and James had them on them.” Indiana Jones would not have had fun in this setting.

Snakes aren’t the only animals that play a part in the movie, as we were told how they were using a half-dozen trained ravens for a number of sequences. Although we weren’t able to confirm it, we’re convinced these were the same trained ravens used by the Pang brothers in their recent thriller The Messengers. Being that the main villain in the piece is called The Rider because he rides a menacing black steed, there were a number of live horses on-hand to accomplish these scenes, including a beautiful white stallion that had been painted with similar Celtic symbols to the ones we had seen earlier.

The next set we visited was the rectory or attic into which Will is forced to move when he loses his own room to a returning relative. As we walked into the space, it looked as if someone had used the set to store a lot of boxes and junk from the movie, but in fact, that was how the attic was dressed-up to show how cramped and cluttered it was, and through the single window, we could view a large matte painting of the cloudy sky which Will sees when he looks outside.

We headed back outside and behind the soundstages, they had built a giant water tank which housed what looked like the roof of a house. Apparently, the Observatory in Greythorne’s mansion is the setting for one of the film’s biggest set pieces when Will finds the water sign and The Rider floods the place. In order to accomplish this, the set had to be built into this giant outdoor water tank and a series of pumps and slides were used to flood the place as water came crashing through the skylight like a waterfall, waterlogging our heroes. The set we walked around showed the tell-tale after effects of that flood, which Conroy was not too crazy about, “I just didn’t think water in the shoes inside plastic bags was the most pleasant feeling for 12 hours. It was like, okay, let’s wring the socks and get wet again.”

Once we were done looking at that set, we walked out to the area behind the studio and after a bit of walking–remember what I said about nothing being nearby?–we were brought into an area of the woods that opened into a clearing. There, we were shown the metal and stone gates of Greythorne’s manor, but then we walked around the corner and our jaws dropped, because none of us had ever seen such an amazing sight. Her mansion had been built on the edge of a lake and there was a roadway leading up to it that led across a bridge that traversed the wide span of the lake leading up to the manor. The railings of the bridge were lined with candles and the mansion looks majestic in that setting. Of course, as we got closer, it became apparent that this wasn’t a mansion, but only a constructed façade held up by a framework of crisscrossed logs and metal poles, and as we walked around behind it, it was hard not to marvel at the craftsmanship of the Romanian construction crew. (On our way back to the soundstages, we came across a strange structure in the middle of the woods and were told that it was a prison where a famous Romanian king was buried.)

After we had walked around looking at the sets, it was time to talk to some of the actors, the first one being Mr. Ian McShane, best known as Al Swearengen on HBO’s tragically missed Western “Deadwood.” We’ve interviewed him a few times and he’s always very fun to talk to, because he’s blunt almost to a fault when answering questions. He gave us his take on the character of Merriman Lyon and making his first big effects movie: “Hodge has made him a butler. He’s sort of this strange, old guy that lives in the house on the hill. I have never done a science fiction movie or anything of this ilk before. I’ve never worked with kids or special effects. The whole process is incredibly laborious. It’s like doing a musical on the stage. There’s less concentration on the acting, and more on the special effects. It’s a little distracting, but that’s how it goes.”

“As everybody’s said, she’s one of the Old Ones. They are timeless,” Frances Conroy told us when it was her turn to face the press inquisition. “They are here to teach this young man who he is that actually place a very heavy burden on him at the age of 14. He has to save the world in 12 days, and I think that Miss Greythorne loves this child and wants to break him in as gently as possible, because it’s terrible news to give him in a way. It’s sort of a shock. So I think that she’s a nurturer. I think she’s a teacher. I think as they all are, she’s omnipotent and they’ve been waiting forever for this moment, for their savior to appear, the last of the Old Ones, for this final battle.”

It was apparent to us that Conroy was a bit of a hippie throwback as well as a devout animal lover, having fallen in love with the city’s dog population. Before we left Media Pro, a few of the journalists were gushing over a box of puppies birthed by one of the studio’s pet strays. Some of the studio’s staff taking the pups to get their shots at the vet but their mother was upset that she was being separated from her brood and was snarling at anyone who came near her. Then, along comes Frances Conroy to the rescue, settling the mother dog down so that she could be loaded into the back of the jeep with her pups. It was a scene that we wouldn’t soon forget.

Jonathan Jackson, who plays the horseless Walker, would meet up with us while we enjoyed a lunch of Romanian delicacies, and he told us about how his version of The Walker differs from the one in the novel. “In the book he’s old and in the movie he becomes timeless, not aging, so he kind of goes through the whole experience and just stays as he is,” he said. “It is different. There are a few really significant changes, I think, from the book to the movie. The Walker basically loses his soul through his relationship with Maggie and there’s a lot less tied onscreen with Merriman and in the book there’s a lot of that back story and they didn’t put as much as that into the film. So it’s more of an innocence and love story between the Walker and Maggie. I don’t think that they actually even mention Hawken in the movie. I mean, they show flashbacks, but they’re not specific about showing his story. In the book, he seemed to make more choices towards the Dark even after he had other opportunities. In the movie, he’s definitely more of a sympathetic character. In a sense he was a victim, I guess, for love.” This confirmed John Hodge’s earlier mention that choices made for the movie would differ from the book, including the omission of a lot of the backstory.

We also had a chance to talk to British actor/screenwriter Jim Piddock, best remembered as the dog show announcer in Best in Show. In this movie, he plays Old George, and he was quick to point that he wasn’t particularly old and that even though he’s often paired with James Cosmo’s Father Dawson, another Old One who helps Will on his quest, he shouldn’t be deemed Dawson’s “sidekick” as such.

Director David Cunningham, best known for helming the TV movie “The Path to 9/11,” had less time to talk than his cast, but he told us about the challenges of adapting Susan Cooper’s novel, especially being his first foray into fantasy. “Susan Cooper’s world is incredibly rich and really the mythology is the plot in her book. Our goal has been to try and make this story more accessible to today’s audience and introduce a new generation to her work. What that means is that someone like John Hodge building on that incredible world and creating moments and some interpretations of her book for us to be able to run with it. From my standpoint, in terms of being a director is to take all of that rich mythology and all of the rich ambiance and try to do something in a way that translates to film. What my attempt has been is trying to do it in a more modern way so that the film style is much more today versus maybe more classical in terms of many fantasy films are shot. So we’re really trying to make this ride feel not like a fantasy film. We want it to be very today, and it’s happening to someone you know and recognize and understand, and even in our casting with the boy and everything else has had that intention in mind versus the more dour kids who’s kind of dejected and strange things happen to him.”

Our last interview of the day was with Alexander Ludwig, the young Canadian actor who had won the coveted part of Will Stanton. A well-spoken blonde teenager, this would be a big role for him, since he literally has to carry the movie appearing in almost every scene, but he was very excited about having superpowers in the movie, as he told us. “The powers that my character has is that he can light stuff on fire which is really cool. He summons great strength. He can move objects with his mind. He can travel through time, but the main thing that I wish he could do, but it would ruin the whole story, is that he can’t fly. He wants to fly in the movie too which I think is perfect because I would love to be able to fly. It would totally change the whole story though.”

Most of that day’s shooting was taking place in the Great Hall, an immense stone structure that is mere ruins in the modern-day, but the film’s climactic finale takes place in the past when it’s still intact. A large part of the novel takes place in this location, and while we didn’t get to walk around much while they were filming, we did see the two giant doors that first brings Will to the Great Hall, his entry to the world of magic as it were.

When attends set visits like this, we often get to see scenes being shot and between interviews, we watched on a monitor as Will, Merriman and James Cosmo as Farmer Dawson arrived at the Great Hall for the final battle with the Dark. Later, we’d watch a scene being shot, which would be a close-up on Jonathan Jackson’s Walker and after cries for everyone to keep quiet, Cunningham yelled “Action!” and we watched as Jackson just stood there motionless with his face completely still and without saying a word. This seemed to go on for an uncomfortably long time to the point where we nearly broke out in giggles, but then Jackson started grimacing and held that face for a while, and then said something (although we couldn’t hear what was being said because we weren’t wearing headsets). Apparently, this is one of the film’s final sequences and Jackson’s odd facial expressions has something to do with FX that will be added later as he goes through some sort of transformation. Interesting.

Before we left, Cunningham would show us an impressive montage of footage that included many of the sets we had already seen and some of the action described to us like the flooding of the manor observatory and the mall security guards as they transformed into raven-like creatures. Sadly, a lot of this footage isn’t seen in the trailer. After a long day, we finally left Media Pro and ventured over to the hotel where Christopher Eccleston was enjoying his day off, but he took some time to talk to us, an interview that you can read here.

Hopefully, this was a suitable introduction to Fox Walden’s adaptation of Susan Cooper’s novel, and though it’s very likely to be very different from the book, it looks like David Cunningham and his cast and crew are trying to create the type of vivid fantasy adventure that will get many kids and adults interested in discovering the books.

The Dark Is Rising opens everywhere on October 5. You can watch the new trailer here! Look for more info and more interviews in the coming months.

Thanks to Ruxandra “Roxy” Comsa for her hospitality, acting as a tour guide on our day trip to two noteworthy Romanian castles the day after this set visit. Also, thanks to Susie Hayasaka from Fox Walden for allowing us so much access to the film’s set and cast while we were in Bucharest.

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Weekend: Feb. 27, 2020, Mar. 1, 2020

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